By Sarah Jones
Robert Burley is mourning the death of film photography.
The Ryerson associate professor’s photo exhibit, The Disappearance of Darkness, exposes the collapse of non-digital photography – an industry that once relied on film-manufacturing facilities and industrial darkrooms that has since evolved to a simpler production process.
“There’s lots of nostalgia,” said Simone Estrin, a gallery attendant at the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC). “We’re in this weird space between analogue and we don’t really know what’s coming next.”
Burley began studying the disappearing film industry at the Kodak compounds in Toronto. There, he took photos of various dying manufacturing facilities. “Of course, I used film,” Burley said, emphasizing the irony.
Kodak is known for its secrecy, but Burley gained unprecedented access because of the contacts he’d made in his days as a Ryerson student. The resulting photographs reveal a procedural complexity that even Burley didn’t know existed in film photography.
“Not only did the buildings contain machines, they were machines,” said Burley.
One image, “View of Building 7 and 11 from the roof of Building 9, Kodak Canada,” showcases the monolithic structure that made up film manufacturers. Layers of pale concrete and windowless steel are stacked against a cloudy sky for an eerie vibe, with the red Kodak logo standing alone in colour. But not even the bright ethos of Kodak could light up the doomed industry.
Kodak went bankrupt in 2012 and Polaroid also experienced two bankruptcies, in 2001 and 2008, which resulted in a major restructuring of the company.
Many major Hollywood film studios, including Disney and Warner Bros., still have contracts with Kodak through 2015. However, by the time contracts expire, they will likely transition to the digital medium.
For Burley, witnessing the emptying and imploding of film manufacturers was a confusing experience.
He said the demolitions served as a metaphor for the disappearance of the long-established medium, and forced him to accept the ever-changing nature of technology. Exhibit attendee Bernard Hashall accepts this change. “People now are used to things that aren’t tangible.”
But it’s not only longtime film enthusiasts who question the change.
Tyler Webb, a Ryerson photography student and pupil of Burley’s, represents a younger generation that also believes in preserving the value of the physical print-making process.
“As an artist, the mediums you use are directly related to the statement you are making,” he said. “The idea of ‘best quality’ or ‘better than’ as blanket statements don’t make sense, they must always be made in relation to the art you are making.”
While Burley draws attention to the melancholy of this evolution, it is done without resentment. The professor is still passionately involved with photography and believes the art form has stopped being about controlling a medium, and more about learning to explore it all over again.
The exhibit is currently on display at the RIC until April 13.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 5, 2014.